Knox @ Knox at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The final event of the DWRF was Knox @ Knox – or rather, pp_elizabeth knoxauthor Elizabeth Knox (right) at Knox Church. Ably chaired by Kate De Goldi, the discussion focused mainly on Knox’s two most recently released books, Mortal Fire and Wake. As it turns out, both books were very much informed by three events that occurred during what must have been a very hard period in Knox’s life − the diagnosis of her mother’s degenerative and fatal motor neuron disease, the psychotic break of her sister, and the murder of her brother-in-law. Consequently, both Mortal Fire and Wake both involve insanity, people who are trapped, a kind of spectrum of abnormality, from something being slightly off kilter to things being completely off the rails, and finally, being in the position of wanting to help, but being unable to.

Knox described her novel Wake as a horror story in which acv_wake character goes into a town where everyone is “murderously, and extravagantly, flamboyantly insane” and that this book had “frightened grown men” (which, I might add, she seemed pretty pleased about, and which the audience in turn found pretty funny). She described the progression of Wake as a case of the characters being in physical peril, to being in psychological peril, to finally being in moral peril − shifting from the imperative “don’t fail others” to say instead “don’t fail yourself”. Ultimately, both De Goldi and Knox agreed that it came down to moral questions of “what do we owe each other?” and “what would we do in that situation?”

Knox also later noted that horror fiction as a genre taps into very basic feelings of fear, and also “wanting to appease” − as in, praying to be saved − so taps into a sense of our own powerlessness. De Goldi also asked Knox to explain what Knox had meant when, in an earlier conversation, she had talked of a work of hers as “an Elizabeth Knox book”. Knox explained that by this she meant that she had always loved the speculative “what if?” fictions found in particularly fantasy and science fiction, but found herself irritated by certain practitioners in those genres not fully exploring those genres’ possibilities. Her approach was to take a genre and then “try to see what is in the story… [to ask] what is there deep inside this thing that is serious? And archetypical?”

Mortal Fire (which I reviewed last year) is the third in a projected quintet of books cv_mortal_fireset in Southland (the first two being Dreamhunter and Dreamquake). Knox talked about wanting to write a novel with a teenage character who has a problem (in this case, a teenage girl’s problems with her mother, and with no knowledge of her father) but who then comes to realise that she doesn’t understand her own life. Knox also wanted to write a story with a protagonist who drives the action, as opposed to a story with a “kick-arse girl” who is landed in a situation that she just has to deal with (Knox mentioned in passing The Hunger Games as an example of this). When De Goldi asked what makes a novel a ‘teenage’ novel, apart from having a teenage protagonist, Knox said that it was to do with a tonal intimacy, where the reader really feels that the story and characters are theirs. In this way the author had to be present everywhere, but always invisible (that is, not obviously interfering or intruding).

buffy_powterThe discussion was rounded off by several questions from the floor, including one from a mother asking about really great television to recommend to her teenage daughter. As a fan of TV myself, it was really cool to see Knox and De Goldi begin to list their best recommendations, since, as Knox pointed out, novels and television are the only two forms of long-form storytelling still extant. In case you’re wondering, both Knox and De Goldi both raved about the “classic tragedy” of Breaking Bad, and Knox also praised the evolution of storytelling seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the mention of which made me do a little fist pump of joy).

Knox @ Knox was a great event to end the DWRF, and it was extremely encouraging to hear that there is already talk of another Festival in 2015. Given the big crowds at every event I attended, I’d imagine that a 2015 Festival would be more than welcome. Here’s to next year!

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

Elizabeth Knox will also appear at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Friday 16 May, at ‘Waking Elizabeth Knox’.